Vulnerability is hard to embrace but when you do, you get to know yourself better. I found a way to safely confront it: improvisational comedy. I took a six-week training and left with some unexpected insights. The stage is a social equalizer that exposes everyone’s personality in a fair and brutal manner, quickly exposing how people really feeling. I learned that the best way to confront vulnerability is through boldness. Finally, I realized that being vulnerable is a way to quickly feel comfortable with people. Improv is a seemingly therapeutic environment where people can be vulnerable without suffering social ridicule.
Here’s how improv works: people play a series of games with around four people who invent a story or jokes based on the rules of the game, what the other actors say, and audience prompts. My class was a diverse group of about fifteen; one guy owned a construction company, there was a psychologist, a pediatrician, two guys were podcasters, and a bunch of others. Throughout the six weeks, everyone was overwhelmed on stage, had their minds freeze, broke character, and felt extremely embarrassed. A Ph.D doesn’t save you from stage fright. Everyone was forced to reveal a sensitive part of themselves to strangers, something that most people never do.
Most are desperate to avoid confrontation and be socially accepted by others. They mask vulnerability behind an arsenal of words and actions. Improv forces people to leave that armor backstage. One improv constant became clear within the first few minutes: feel embarrassed and make people laugh by being bold and energetic, or feel embarrassed, act embarrassed, and people will feel bad for you. The inner voice that is always suppressed is forced into the spot light, and when the spotlight hits it, parts of yourself you never knew were there come alive on stage. In my case, I usually think of sexual jokes, or my first reaction to things has some kind of sexual undertone. It’s weird, whatever. That combined with a higher than average aversion to social confrontation means that I tend to keep that part of me quiet. In improv, even though I am embarrassed and my mind tells me a thousand different ways that people think I am weird, if you’re bold and come out guns-a-blazing, you can pull it off, it feels amazing because you’re being yourself, and the audience laughs.
I did not think that I would relate to any of my classmates on the first day. I was the youngest by at least 8 years, but surprisingly the entire class became really close to each other on the first two hours. Much more so than say, a defensive driving course could have brought people. After the second class, I joined everyone at the bar next door to the theater. Even before we got our glasses, everyone started honestly sharing and relating to each other about how the stage made them feel and act. We felt comfortable being open because all the awkwardness came out during class. We all shared a hidden part of ourselves on stage, so it was fun to talk about it afterwards. We were proud of each other for allowing ourselves to be judged.
Improv brings people to the cutting edge of reality that makes people feel vulnerable, but it’s an environment where you can feel safe too. It helps you get to know yourself and others in a way that would not be possible in a coffee shop or a bar. It’s a great beta-test for embracing boldness in other parts of your life. Because of improv, I am more comfortable being myself.